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The Legacy of the Crushed 1981 PATCO Strike

Forty years ago today, 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike. President Ronald Reagan would soon crush that strike — leading to devastating consequences for organized labor and all workers that we’re still dealing with today.

Strikers belonging to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) march at JFK Airport in New York. (Getty Images)

On August 3, 1981, forty years ago today, thirteen thousand members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike, demanding an annual wage increase, upgrades to outdated equipment, and a reduced workweek. Two days later, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 of them, sending a clear signal to corporate America that it could declare open season on organized labor and US workers generally.

The aggressively anti-union tactics employed by the Reagan administration against PATCO ushered in a renewed era of strikebreaking that’s still with us today, from the failed Detroit newspaper strike of 1995–1997 to Verizon’s hiring of ten thousand nonunion workers in an attempt to break a 2016 strike.

The strike was a consequence of stalled contract negotiations between PATCO and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The controllers called for a reduced workweek, bringing the existing five-day, forty-hour workweek down to four days and thirty-two hours, in response to widespread controller fatigue. The job was inherently stressful — workers regularly developed ulcers and high blood pressure — but that stress was exacerbated in 1978 by airline industry deregulation under President Jimmy Carter.

Bob Poli, PATCO’s president in 1981, stated that nearly 90 percent of the workforce didn’t stay in their jobs long enough to retire due to the job’s brutal stresses. The strike was announced after a new contract offer from the FAA didn’t include the shorter working week — a key demand — or earlier retirement.

As an immediate result of the strike, an estimated seven thousand flights across the country were cancelled. At a press conference later that day, US president Ronald Reagan demanded that the controllers return to work, stating: “They are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within forty-eight hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.” Prior to issuing the ultimatum, Reagan announced that he respected “the right of workers in the private sector to strike,” and underlined his own union credentials: “Indeed, as president of my own union [Screen Actors Guild], I led the first strike ever called by that union.”

Yet Reagan said labor-management relations in the private sector could not be compared to the government, because government “cannot close down the assembly line” upon which the public depended. He theatrically read the oath taken by controllers not to participate in any strike action. As federal employees, PATCO did not have a legal right to strike — a fact Reagan would use to justify his ironhanded response.

President Reagan makes a statement to the press regarding the air traffic controllers on August 3, 1981, the first day of the strike. (National Archives)

By August 5, the day of Reagan’s ultimatum, only 1,300 controllers had broken with the strike and returned to work. The president stayed true to his word, firing the over eleven thousand controllers still striking and banning them from federal employment for life, a ban that was only lifted twelve years later, in 1993, by President Bill Clinton.

Following the failed strike, PATCO was decertified as a union. As an organization, it was annihilated. Many of the former controllers suffered immense hardships, including struggles to replace their income and the subsequent breakdown of relationships and marriages, after losing their highly specialized job. Some fired members and their partners even killed themselves.

Roots of a Failed Strike

The PATCO leadership were blindsided by the firings — especially since the union had, unwisely, endorsed Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign over Carter’s. PATCO president Poli was persuaded by a letter he received from Reagan in October 1980 that stated:

You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety.

Once Reagan took office, however, it soon became apparent that whatever ally PATCO thought they had in the White House was in fact a pro-business zealot who savored the opportunity to crush organized labor. Andrew Tillett-Saks underlines PATCO’s political misjudgment: “Unions that give their imprimatur to an anti-union president will soon find that president destroying them and the rest of the labor movement anyway.”

Another factor that pushed the PATCO strike toward catastrophe was public opinion. As research from the Pew Research Center shows, the fired controllers won little sympathy from the public. A Gallup poll conducted a few days after the firings showed that 59 percent of Americans approved of the way Reagan was handling the issue, compared to just 30 percent who disapproved. The Gallup poll also found that a whopping 68 percent of the public thought that air traffic controllers shouldn’t be allowed to strike. As David Macaray states, “The PATCO strike of 1981 will undoubtedly go down in history as a monument to overplaying one’s hand.”

This lack of popularity isn’t inherent to illegal strikes. If strikers demonstrate they are using their militancy to fight not just for themselves but for the entire working class, they can build a broad coalition of sustained community support. Teachers have done this in recent years, waging strikes both legal and illegal in cities like Chicago and red states like West Virginia that have proven widely popular. Unfortunately, PATCO strikers failed to frame their demands in ways that appealed to the public, and Reagan’s narrative that the union was greedy — “the union demands are seventeen times what had [previously] been agreed to,” the president insisted publicly — gained traction, portraying the strikers as selfish and unreasonable.

In addition, the strikers drastically underestimated Reagan’s willingness to replace them. It isn’t illegal for US companies or the government to hire strikebreakers. A notorious 1936 Supreme Court ruling, NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., described by Paul C. Weiler as “the worst contribution that the U.S. Supreme Court has made to the current shape of labor law in this country,” legally defends the act of strikebreaking. Reagan’s intervention during the PATCO strike, however, “normalized the aggressive strike-breaking and union-busting agenda that had already become common in the private sector” and accelerated the use of strikebreaking as an anti-union tactic.

Seth Ackerman points out that permanent replacement became a “critical weapon” that allowed employers to go on the offensive against organized workers, and management even “actively sought to provoke strikes, with the intention of keeping production running and permanently replacing the workers, thereby getting rid of a union once and for all.” Indeed, “the probability of a union activist being illegally fired during a union organizing campaign rose from about 10 percent in the 1970s to 27 percent over the first half of the 1980s.” The strike rate collapsed soon after.

In the case of PATCO, two thousand non-striking controllers crossed the picket line to join roughly three thousand supervisors and nine hundred military controllers to effectively circumvent the firings. In the long-term, the cost of training new replacements far exceeded PATCO’s contract demands. Yet in the short-term, the government was able to quickly restore 80 percent of flights to normal operations — crushing the strikers’ leverage in the process.

The Legacy of PATCO

While the firing was clearly a devastating moment for PATCO members and the labor movement as a whole, the specific significance of the strike is contested by labor historians. For Joseph A. McCartin, author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America, the strike “put public sector workers on the defensive” and “catalyzed the revival of strike breaking.” Throughout the book, McCartin asserts the strike was a “game-changing event in American labor relations.”

Richard W. Hurd, however, states that “Reagan’s economic policies and his appointees to the NLRB surely inflicted more damage on unions generally than did his handling of the PATCO strike. PATCO is a prime example of union busting, but not the singular event that caused decline.” Michael McCarthy agrees that the significance of the PATCO strike has been overstated, instead arguing that it was the Federal Reserve anti-inflationary policies — underway before 1981 — that debilitated the power of American workers: “Despite the image that the PATCO rout conjures up, Reagan’s attack on labor was mostly indirect, working covertly through the mechanisms of monetary policy.”

A hearse with a sign that reads “New York Labor Mourns PATCO 1968–1981” drives down Fifth Avenue during the 1982 New York Labor Day Parade. (Walter Leporati / Getty Images)

Paul Volcker, who served as chair of the Federal Reserve under both Carter and Reagan, spearheaded the Federal Reserve’s deflationary policy. As David Harvey asserts, under Volcker’s leadership,

the long-standing commitment in the US liberal democratic state to the principles of the New Deal, which meant broadly Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies with full employment as the key objective, was abandoned in favor of a policy designed to quell inflation no matter what the consequence might be for employment.

As Doug Henwood notes, this startling shift in US monetary policy triggered “a long deep recession that would empty factories and break unions in the US.”

Kim Moody states that labor’s decline was apparent in the late 1970s, before the PATCO strike. The 1979–80 recession, argues Moody in an interview with Jacobin, decimated labor’s power: strikes halved within a year, and in the next two years, “unions lost a quarter of their membership, much of their wage gains — all of it, all at once.” Moody also points to the concessionary bargaining undertaken by United Auto Workers with Chrysler in 1979 — which effectively lowered wages and working conditions to encourage Congress to pass the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act — as a major factor behind labor’s wider decline, one far greater than the PATCO strike.

McCarthy also points out that the decline in union density under Reagan “was driven almost exclusively by private-sector losses. Public-sector unions actually made gains in the Reagan years.” Considering PATCO’s position as a federal employee union, it’s surprising that public-sector unions grew following its very public demise; an indication, perhaps, that its significance vis-à-vis US labor’s decline has been exaggerated.

Still, while attacks on organized labor had begun before the PATCO strike, Reagan’s ruthless response to the controllers gave trade unionists a demoralizing and very public beating. The government’s willingness to use replacement workers to break the strike and fire those who refused to return to work set an extreme anti-union example that undoubtedly damaged the spirits of trade unionists in other sectors.

While there were 235 major work stoppages in 1979, that number dropped to 187 in 1980 and plummeted to 54 by 1985. As conservative columnist George Will observes, Reagan’s PATCO firings “produced a cultural shift, a new sense of what can be appropriate in business management: layoffs can be justifiable even when a company is profitable if the layoffs will improve productivity and profitability.” Beyond the symbolic destruction of the union, the lives of many fired workers and their families were ravaged in the aftermath of the failed strike.

In 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Peter Robb, Reagan’s lead attorney in the PATCO case who litigated the firings, to become general counsel of the NLRB. While American workers’ fortunes have nose-dived since PATCO, the union busters who broke the strike are still doing quite well for themselves. For the American capitalist class, the ruthlessness with which they defeated PATCO has paid off handsomely.